Doin’ time: how to end up in a Chinese jail

iLook China recently ran a guest post by Lionel Carver (no idea if that’s a pseudonym or not), which details the writer’s experience being a guest of the government in a Chinese jail.

Subtitled with “A Cautionary Tale for Expats in China“, I was curious to read both what Carver endured and, perhaps most voyeuristically, what he did to get there.

His description of the long boring days (all eight of them), spartan comforts, and brief brush with man-on-man-on-man action were not without their charms. However, throughout the telling, I was finding it hard not to feel like Lionel got exactly what he asked for.

Carver’s reason for landing in the clink is pretty much absurd, from start to finish. Washing up in Shanghai, in search of the “jade dream”, he immediately shrugs off the ESL racket to try his hand at a less-worn path. He takes a job with a real-estate company that promises him regular pay and a Z-visa — neither of which materialize.

Eventually my 3-month tourist visa expired. I thought I would be okay as long as I laid low—but I was wrong. There are eyes everywhere in China, especially on foreigners.

It was in Huaqiaozhen, a suburb of Shanghai, that everything began to unravel. I had just signed a lease for a cheap, shared apartment, but, strangely, the landlord never came to collect the rent or sign the contract.

One Saturday morning I awoke to a knock at my door. I answered, thinking it would be the landlord, only to come face to face with a PSB (Public Security Bureau) officer checking identifications for registration.

Carver repeatedly fails to renew his visa or register with the PSB/police station. He also continues to rather blatantly dodge the authorities, who are quite obviously aware something’s, well, dodgy about this fella. He was finally busted after hiding out on his balcony in sight of the cops below — no translation needed, that screams “guilty of something” in all languages.

They took him to the station, explained he was staying in the country illegally with an expired visa (a fact that surely came as no surprise) and had the option to either pay a fine or go to jail for eight days. I’m pretty sure if we knew Lionel, like personally, we all would have known from the outset that going to jail was the option he would choose. I mean, his decisions up to that point hadn’t exactly been stellar — at least he’s consistent.

Go check out the whole story (really there’s bed shaking prison love that would make Tobias Beecher clench). “A Cautionary Tale for Expats in China” though? I don’t know iLook China well enough to know the blog’s readership all that well. We get a mixed bag of readers here at Lost Laowai though, and I’m decently confident this will be anything but a cautionary tale to most, if not all, of them.

In case some half-wit happens by though: if your visa is expiring — get it renewed. Do not stay in a country without a visa. It’s not hard. It’s not expensive. It’s certainly better than spending a week in jail. And if you do accidentally overstay your visa (and it better involve a one-legged Mongolian prostitute, the Russian mafia and a case of baijiu) for christ’s sake, pay the fine. Or, better yet — just take the fucking teaching job in the first place.

Photo from Flickr.

Talk on Doin’ time: how to end up in a Chinese jail


14 Comments
  1. Profile photo of Travis

    Agreed. The people for whom this is a cautionary tale aren’t going to be the sorts who would heed the “warning” (don’t overstay your visa — well, I hadn’t thought of that) in the first place.

    I think you’re going to get a lot of mileage out of this “bad laowai” category.

  2. Profile photo of Nicki

    Overstayed ours by 30 days when we first moved to Hainan in 2005. (A one-legged Mongolian prostitute, the Russian mafia and a case of baijiu were strangely not involved! As far as we know.) School told us they were taking care of it, don’t worry, don’t worry, no problem. Turns out they had no idea how to do it and were just hoping the problem would “go away.” When we found out they hadn’t turned our papers in for processing as they’d said, we immediately went to the police station to take care of it. Unfortunately we didn’t know much Chinese yet and the lady from the school “translated” for us at the police station, so we had no way of knowing if she was translating correctly. We assume that the police heard a version that was a bit different since the truth would put her in a rather bad light. We ended up paying a fine and thumbprinting a “confession” we couldn’t even read. We weren’t too happy but hey, we didn’t go to jail! So, moral of the story, don’t overstay your visa, if you do pay the fine, and for goodness sake learn Chinese or at least get a translator you can trust!

    • Yea, I read a lot about problems like this. Unfortunately, as much as I tried to watch my back on this problem, I didnt know what to do about the fools I was dealing with that wouldnt pay a jiao for the work I did or fill out the forms for a work visa. I was living on a budget so when you do that you fear what might happen if you piss off your friend claiming to give you a high paying title. I threw fear out the door on my second major job in real estate because I was at such a low I had nowhere to go. So, I stood and fought, but fighting a woman on a PMS rage always ends in a loss.

  3. Profile photo of

    Some interesting conversation in the Hao Hao Report submission that I initially saw this story in.

    @Nicki: Ouch. That sort of thing I can understand, at least a bit more than the situation in the story above, as we really should be able to trust our employers. We’ve all learned that doing so is naive, and we all have some similar scars that serve as reminders. But I think there’s a big difference between your employer screwing you, and you screwing yourself.

    I guess in that way Lionel’s story could be a reminder for laowai new to the country to not trust their visa situation to anyone but themselves. To me though it sounded like that it was precisely Lionel’s own hands that got him in trouble, and not his trust in an employer.

    • You guessed it right the first time Ryan. Honestly the whole time in China nothing was in my hands. I lived on a limited budget eating only one meal a day which might have caused the near blackout I had one bright May morning in 2011. Malnutrition. I’m still not sold on the idea being a former cancer survivor the thought of my impending doom is always rolling around in my mind. Reading about chemotherapy the life saver as the ultimate killer doesnt help the situation, nor does some websites that give an average life span for survivors (which some claim is 10 years past remission).

    • I was smart to use a fictitious name when I wrote that because I didnt intend for people to react so negatively. I meant to create a memoir, and I saw the blog as an attempt to test the waters. People have their own opinions, I’m just telling my story how it happened. I’m not competing against who had the best jail story. Sometimes it doesnt hurt to ask to post to a blog as bloggers are usually looking for content to keep their blog alive.

      I’m not stupid using my real name because I think it’s time to pull the curtain back so people get a look at the bigger picture rather than what’s on a blog.

  4. This guy apparently deserved to do the time.
    I feel ashamed for this kind of guys going abroad.

    Failed at home? went abroad? failed again.
    Fail.

    I wish these guys can stay home, they are making life harder for me and all the other guys that to things right here.

    /C

    • I’m glad mr/ms C nailed it on the head as I’ve felt like a failure and the only thing I have to my name is to survive life’s little disasters.

      I will remind you though, it’s not me giving you the bad cred, it’s your fellow expats that purposely hide from the police because they are packing drugs and living life to the extreme with a different girl everyday and breaking hearts left and right. To be exact, my count is at 3 and 1/2. One was 10 yrs older and realized she nabbed a man that’s never had a woman. The next was a crazy student that hung out every night with guys. If you want her email, I’d be happy to hook you up if you’re willing to move to Shenzhen. The third I think was a hooker my boss or somebody arranged as none of her story fit and it was near my bday. The last one was my girlfriend, which I was planning to marry if she stopped calling me 24/7 to ask if we were in love. So there you have it you have nothing to fear from me so dont lob me in the crowd of misfits that ruin it for everyone else. I know one renter that I had to take to police to register his apartment. I was taking a huge risk, only after we got out of immigration because his visa had expired by a few days, did he tell me he had weed in his bag. He had a girlfriend each night and was planning to marry a 35 yr old and another was pregnant. At some times I wanted to strangle him for ruining so many lives, but at other times I saw him living a very cool life like nothing mattered and everything was a party. So yea, I did a lot for the real estate business. I’m still in shock that in 1 PMS rage everything came crashing down, and I was booted out to fend for myself.

  5. “Eventually my 3-month tourist visa expired. I thought I would be okay as long as I laid low—”

    To Lionel:

    And do what? Chill out in the Chinese suburbs? What was his master plan exactly? Mooch off his baijiu-soaked absent minded landlord? Dude if you wanna hang out in China, go to University. It’s called a Student Visa. Don’t worry you don’t have to actually do anything, just Major in Chinese. I don’t know what the Jade Dream is, but uh, for your sake, I hope it has nothing to do with 同志爱 in the 监狱.

    • I lived in the suburbs yes. My last apartment was lightly furnished. The wooden bed I think had bugs as I itched, so I ended sleeping on the concrete floor with roaches.

      My master plan? How far do you want to delve down this road? Originally I planned to marry the girl in Guangzhou, get a job, and save for future travel and work in Japan. Eventually I wanted to have a business of my own to increase the profits and with the money rolling in I wanted to find the secret to longevity. Maybe it’s just a fools dream, but I dont want to go down again from cancer. As for my landlord you’d have to be more specific. My first one never came to fix anything. My second one never spoke to me as he was a chinese farmer and communicated through my roommate. My third one, my boss, well it worked great up until she ran me out on a PMS rage. My fourth was an old lady lived upstairs. I never mooched off a chinese as chinese are very hard to part with their money. Mooched off family living on a bum’s budget, so as much as I wanted to start a small business I couldnt.

      So what’s some good programs for going as a student? I’m greatly interested as I’ve applied at a state university to major in Chinese, but was convinced by a friend to do Ashford University online which doesnt have a Chinese major nor is connected to any study abroad programs that I know of. I was looking at one which was cool because you could transfer your scholarships and everything from a state university and you can get more scholarships through their program. Unfortunately, 25,000 a year is quite a high price when I can study directly at the chinese university for around 6000rmb. Even my father, the one open to intercontinental communication, suggested I learn Chinese as they are taking over the markets in his field of wind power.

  6. Actually 8 days seems quite light compared to the time people sometimes do in detention centres in my country before deportation.

    I got into a mess in my 1st year – after my passport was stolen – mainly because I didn’t know the system and trusted the wrong people to steer me along, live and learn. . . but Carver seems to have knowingly flouted the law

  7. I know its a little late but I just could not help responding to this guy’s predicament. To sum it up, this guy is a classic example of a bonehead. Did he thought he was back home where he can just hide and mingle with the locals and only get caught when he is pulled over for a busted taillight? Talk about giving foreigners a bad rap with his stupidity. I can be sympathetic if he tried to do everything right and the bureaucracy failed him and he ended in the hooshgaow but he brought this on himself. Well I can still sympathize for his troubles to say the least but talk about just not thinking clearly of his predicament.

    He is lucky that he was not sentenced longer for this. Also it could be worse, he could have been in a Turkish prison, and a sequel to Midnight Express could have been created from his experience. BTW Ryan, you did not have to say “…man-on-man-on-man action…” just say “riding the train” would have been appropriate.

  8. The title just screams “it’s all their fault” rather than accepting blame. I personally know the prison system of China, as I was jailed for six months for destroying an ATM back in 2006. He complains of “long boring days” and only did 8 days? What a wuss! I did six months and nearly went insane near the end because of the monotony. I was filling out entire composition books (we could buy items in prison) filled wiht nonsensical charts about finance and business plans. This guy is the kind of guy that give expats in China a bad name. The prosecution at the end of my trial actually pleaded for leniancy from the court because of my extensive experience in China and good sino/American relationships.

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